The young and the restless
22 February 2011 | By Laura Manning
New head Judith Perkins plans to toughen up the much-criticised Junior Lawyers Division
Judith Perkins, new chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), has taken the helm at a critical time for the organisation.
In recent months the JLD has taken a bruising, thanks mainly to comments it made on TheLawyer.com over BPP Law School’s rapid expansion plans, with some asking what it has achieved in the three years since its creation and others questioning its very existence.
Conceding that the JLD has a bumpy road ahead, Perkins claims she has a host of ideas to push the organisation in a positive direction. And with her energy and drive, the Elbourne Mitchell Solicitors lawyer certainly seems to have what it takes.
Perkins insists that in her new role she wants to “address issues and not shy away from controversy”. But when challenged on the JLD’s lack of achievements she stumbles over her words, finally clearing her throat to talk about its work with pro bono charity LawWorks and its push for greater diversity in the profession.
She says she is resolute about looking closely at issues such as the possible introduction of a Legal Practice Course (LPC) aptitude test, problems raised by the oversupply of law students and growing concerns over cuts to legal aid.
However, when pressed on how the JLD plans to tackle these issues she is rather vague, saying her key aim is for the division to be more hands-on when it comes to getting hard answers to some of these questions.
“We want to get out there and not sit on the fence but do research, write blogs and organise questionnaires,” she says. “I want to push us towards being able to come down on one side or the other. I don’t want to shy away from being controversial.”
Perkins adds that she would also like to work with careers services to get information to ensure students are better informed of their options.
“We want a bigger pool of people to feed us their views,” she says. “We want to sit down with them and say, ’this issue has come up and we’re responding to it, but what do you think?’.”
The JLD’s biggest campaign this year is against the predicted cuts to legal aid. It is working on a response to the government consultation document on the issue, to be delivered later this month (February).
Perkins’ own route into law was “rather boring”, she says. She explains that she was guided into studying law after an event she attended at the tender age of 14, at which a lawyer spoke about his career.
Throughout her adolescence Perkins gathered experience in law, laughing about a work placement at the age of 16 at the local magistrates’ court, where she surprised one or two by her presence at the front of the room. She followed this with a stint at a small local firm before studying English and Australian law at the University of Nottingham. She then spent a year studying at the University of Melbourne and subsequently completed 46 applications and eight interviews, receiving two training contract offers. She secured a contract at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain prior to joining Elborne Mitchell after qualification in 2006.
The JLD has also come under fire for keeping the same committee for too long, with claims that some members are overqualified to truly represent young lawyers. In response, Perkins says the JLD tries to keep the committee fresh by electing half one year and half the next, mixing new members with old “so no committee needs to reinvent the wheel”. All terms are two years, except for the student representative (normally at LPC level), who completes one year.
The committee is currently discussing a response to the review of legal education announced last November by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards, along with the College of Law’s paper on the subject.
The paper explores abolishing the training contract and moving the solicitor qualification to take effect straight after study. Perkins believes the paper contains some good ideas, but fears it could “dilute the brand of solicitors”.
“But I accept that our training system and the LPC are becoming a little outdated, and changes will have to be made if lawyers are going to be seen as business people rather than just lawyers,” she adds.
One of the principal issues that arose during the heavy criticism of the JLD was whether its projects respond to the needs of City trainees. Perkins answers with a resounding ’yes’.
“Student issues are common to all, although some of the events we run may not be needed by City trainees due to the level of in-house training they receive,” she says.
Indeed, some of the issues the JLD is concerned with, such as the Legal Services Act and opening the market up to alternative business structures, will affect all trainees.
The new JLD chair has a good head on her shoulders and the right attitude. Given the challenges the JLD will face in 2011 she is just what the organisation needs.